the perils of overreach -- 8/15/17

Today's selection -- from Aurangzeb by Audrey Truschke. As long as there have been empires, there have been emperors prone to overreach, usually with detrimental consequences to their empires. And so it was with Aurangzeb, who expanded the Mughal Empire of India to its greatest size by the early 1700s, but who sowed the seeds of that empire's demise in so doing:

"In terms of territorial expansion, Aurangzeb enjoyed unpar­alleled success in his Deccan [conquests]. He used both military and diplomatic resources to expand Mughal control across the southern half of the subcontinent. But, even while Aurangzeb lived, signs cropped up that the Deccan wars boded ill for the future of the Mughal state. Aurangzeb's later decades of ruth­less assaults and endless sieges were superficially successful but, ultimately, hollow.

Historical map of the Mughal Empire

"Among Aurangzeb's many Deccan victories, the sultanates of Bijapur and Golconda stand out as crucial, if costly, conquests. ...

"After Golconda, the Marathas were the major remaining opponents of Aurangzeb. Maratha leaders lost Jinji (Gingee), a fort in Tamil Nadu, to the Mughals in 1698. Between 1699 and 1706 Aurangzeb's forces assaulted one dozen hill forts held by Marathas, and Mughal borders swelled, coming ever closer to encompassing the entire subcontinent. In total, Aurangzeb added four new Mughal provinces, which collectively made up more than one-quarter of the entire Mughal kingdom. But these land acquisitions were short-lived. Within a few decades of Aurangzeb's death the Mughals lost all that he had gained in the Deccan, and the empire began to crumble.

"Even during Aurangzeb's life, military strikes in the Deccan raised hefty problems for the Mughal state. The constant war­ring depleted the treasury and sapped the will of many nobles. Especially Rajputs and other North Indians were ill-content to toil for decades in southern India, far from home and sub­jected to a climate, culture, and people that they did not con­sider their own. For instance, Bhimsen Saxena, a Kayasth from Uttar Pradesh whose family had served the Mughals for gen­erations, wrote frankly about the hardships of travel and long separations from family. He characterized South Indians as an utterly foreign people who disgusted him. Describing the Dec­can battles of the mid-1690s, Bhimsen wrote about southern Hindus: 'They are dark of complexion, ill-shaped and ugly of form. If a man who has not seen them before, encounters them in the dark night, he will most likely die of fright.' Faced with life among people that they viewed as repulsive, many felt that Mughal service had lost its appeal. ...

Prince Aurangzeb facing a maddened war elephant named Sudhakar.

"The siege of Jinji offers some indication of the unrest that overtook many Mughal troops and nobles during the Deccan years. Aurangzeb occupied Jinji in 1698 but only after an eight-­year siege. The length of this protracted siege is hard to justify, and observers at the time typically blamed the commander, Zul­fiqar Khan, for being unwilling to commit to the task. Rumors flew about, including that Zulfiqar Khan was in cahoots with the Marathas who controlled Jinji and that he wanted to avoid being dispatched to desolate Qandahar, a plausible next posting. In any case, unnecessarily prolonging a siege suggests that army morale and imperial authority were slipping. ...

"Aurangzeb was an emperor, and as such he needed no spe­cial justification for seeking to enlarge his empire. But still, one wonders what drove such aggressive ventures into his old age and against the better judgment of many Mughal officers. Was Aurangzeb frustrated by the persistence of Maratha fighters, who were no match for the Mughals in open battle but often effectively used speed, surprise, and guerilla tactics against im­perial troops? Did Aurangzeb believe that more territory would shore up the Mughal state? Did he devote so much of his life to conquering southern India that he did not know how to quit? Whatever his reasons, it seems that Aurangzeb lost himself in the drive to acquire more and more territory."



Audrey Truschke


Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India's Most Controversial King


Stanford University Press


Copyright 2017 by Audrey Truschke


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